Reprint from Immaculata Magazine, Mar/Apr 2000 Issue
Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings:
A Trilogy of Total Consecration
"The amazing popularity of the Trilogy ought to become a springboard for MIs to spread the message of Total Consecration beyond the boundaries of its usual audience."
The third millennium is here, and an interesting detail emerges amidst all the greater concerns of human society. J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy has been voted by the British reading public as the greatest novel of the twentieth century.
The trilogy is a work of fantasy, featuring dragons, wizards and elves. It tells the story of the close of the Second Age of Middle Earth, when Frodo Baggins, a diminutive hobbit of the humble Shire, bears the Ring of Power to its destruction on Mount Doom and thus destroys the reign of the dark lord Sauron.
Evidently, the secular literary world went ballistic when the The Lord of the Rings was selected. The modern mind has no use for tales of this kind. This is because the modern mind has not grasped the great issues of the twentieth century, as J.R.R. Tolkien and his innumerable fans apparently have.
The Kolbe Connection
The Lord of the Rings has been voted the best book of the century because it presents, in fictional form, what the last hundred years have been all about. Beginning with Leo XIII's vision of a century in which Satan was granted freer reign, our century has seen world wars and nuclear destruction, holocausts and the globalization of abortion. On the other hand, it has also seen the spectacular witness of Maximilian Kolbe, the "patron of our difficult century," who altered the atmosphere of Auschwitz itself.
In Middle Earth as well, a huge threat nearly engulfed the world. Against Sauron's "culture of death" a hero arose. A small hero-you might say, a Franciscan hero-whose strength was in weakness and whose victory was for all. The Lord of the Rings won over all other recent literature because it is a novel of Total Consecration, which is, in truth, what the twentieth century had been all about.
How so? The Lord of the Rings clearly illustrates the eternal battle between the Woman and the Dragon, especially in its twentieth-century incarnation, along with the means by which this battle must be joined.
Sauron and Satan
In Middle Earth, Sauron represents the demonic. He does not directly represent Satan, as the Silmarillion, the trilogy's prequel, makes clear. In Tolkien's mythology, there is the One from whom all else has come-obviously representing God. The One originated the Valar, supernatural beings who can only be described as a cross between Olympian gods and goddesses, and the heavenly hosts of angels. (Remember, this is only fiction after all.) After the Valar come the Maia, demigods of somewhat lesser status, to which class Gandalf the Wizard belongs.
In the beginning, the Valar assisted in the creation of Middle Earth through the singing of songs. In an obvious parallel to the fall of Lucifer and his angels, one of their number, Melkor, rebels, sets out to devastate the work of the others, and is renamed Morgoth. Sauron is not Morgoth, but a fallen Maia in Morgoth's service.
But Who Represents Mary?
If the Tolkien fan has no trouble identifying the demonic elements in the tale, the Marian elements are less obvious. Still, they are there, and without them the story of Frodo's quest would make no sense.
Several commentators have advanced the opinion that Galadriel, the elvish queen of fair Lothlorien, is the Mary character. This is because Tolkien remarks that "on the land of Lorien there is no stain," taken as a reference to Mary's Immaculate Conception.
While it may refer to a Marian quality that has come to be associated with Lothlorien, it cannot possibly be taken to establish Galadriel as the Mary character. Tolkien tells us at length in his other writings that Galadriel's background contains an (unspecified) fall from grace of which her later encounter with Frodo constitutes the last stage of reparation. This is why, when she refuses the Ring, she says, "I pass the test." Having fallen away, she now chooses the good in a definitive way.
How can this powerful but converted elf-woman be said to stand for the Immaculata, who never so much as flirted with sin even once throughout her entire life?
There is, on the other hand, a feminine character in the trilogy who is described as: "Snow white! Snow white! O Lady clear! O Queen beyond the Western seas! O light to us who wander here amidst the world of woven trees!" Here is a genuine reference to the Immaculate Conception, connected to a person, not a place. This "queen" of all, not just Lothlorien, is associated with stars, like the woman in chapter 12 of Revelation. The elves sing of her; the Company of the Ring invoke her; the light of her stars, captured in Galadriel's phial, illuminates the worst parts of Frodo's quest.
Her name is Elbereth Gilthoniel, a member of the Valar also known as Varda.
When Frodo and his three hobbit companions are being pursued by the Black Riders, servants of Sauron, Gildor the elf is prompted to cry out, "May Elbereth protect you!" When these riders attack Frodo and company on Weathertop, Frodo is saved from personal destruction by calling out Elbereth's name at the critical moment. And in the lair of Shelob the spider, when the fate of the quest rests in Sam's hands, he cries out to Elbereth in an elvish tongue he doesn't even know and is given the ability to overcome.
Elbereth, then, is the actual "Mary" character in The Lord of the Rings. Like Mary of Nazareth, she stays demurely in the background of the story in which she is actually central. Like Mary of Nazareth, she is the true vanquisher of the demonic, and the commander in the battle against it.
Unlike Mary of Nazareth, she is by nature supernatural, but again, The Lord of the Rings is fictional after all. Tolkien didn't set out to write a point-for-point allegory, and we shouldn't expect to find one. But we shouldn't overlook the thematic lessons that are really there, either.
The Will is the Weapon
In the great struggle between the Woman and the Dragon, as Father Kolbe taught, we have no choice but to take sides; to attempt neutrality is to join with Satan. In taking Mary's side, one needs to renounce evil and merely natural means and give her the one weapon she both needs and desires: one's will. These realities about Total Consecration are woven so fully into the tale Tolkien tells, that they go unnoticed at first glance.
In Middle Earth, non-consecration is impossible, as the ill-fated Boromir, warrior of Gondor, illustrates most directly.
Attempting to combat Sauron independently, Boromir adopts Sauron's own weapon (the Ring), and starts down the path to becoming another dark lord himself. Fortunately he repents, but the message of his fall is clear. To fight effectively is to become Elbereth's, or Mary's, servant; to try to fight on one's own is a path not only to defeat, but to the defeat of becoming a servant of the enemy himself.
Just as the methods of evil must be renounced by the warrior on the side of good, so must the means of the merely natural realm. St. Maximilian, like St. Francis before him, turned aside from physical soldiery to become a spiritual soldier for Christ and his Blessed Mother. From Gandalf's blunt proclamation at the Last Debate that "victory cannot be achieved by arms," to Frodo and Sam's abandonment of their weapons as the final approach to Mount Doom begins, the limited usefulness of literal weaponry in the struggle between the Woman and the Dragon is another theme Tolkien highlights over and over again.
The real weapon in the real battle, as St. Maximilian stated continually, is the human will. Mary Immaculate demonstrates this because her will is the most completely submitted to God that any merely human will can be, and it is by means of this submission that the conquering of Satan is achieved. Mary, in her turn, asks that we submit our wills to her, which is the essence of Total Consecration.
Similarly, in Middle Earth, the heroes in the tale of the Ring undergo a continual commitment and purification of this particular faculty, upon which the fate of Middle Earth really rests. Who can fail to hear Kolbean consecrated instrumentality, for example, in Frodo's crucial words at the Council of Elrond, when he accepts the burden of the Ring in a definitive way? Of this moment Tolkien says that Frodo "wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice." Consecration is required of all in the quest, even the lowly Sam, whose inner development Tolkien describes this way: "Sam's plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him."
Evidently, a paradox is at work here. Those who give their will to Elbereth find it strengthened by the gift. This process was demonstrated in reality by St. Maximilian who, having surrendered his will wholly to the Immaculata at an early age, remained, even in Auschwitz, truly free.
For the servants of Sauron, the paradox works in reverse. The fearsome Black Riders, seemingly powerful in their own right, are spoken of by Gandalf as "ensnared." Of Gollum, the character most wholly given over to the Ring, Gandalf says, "he had no will left in the matter." Surrendering one's will to the wrong side, as both Tolkien and Kolbe understood, leads instead to slavery and defeat.
No Waste of Time
The charge that The Lord of the Rings is for babies and escapists, then, ought to be met head on by the MI. This remarkable work is thematically rich with lessons of Total Consecration that can help us both to learn and to teach. The amazing popularity of the Trilogy ought to become a springboard for MIs to spread the message of Total Consecration beyond the boundaries of its usual audience.
As the Second Millennium has drawn to a close, let us take a better look at this tale of the close of the Second Age of Middle Earth, and profit from the grim and glorious lessons of the twentieth century which it helps its readers to grasp and understand.
Why, then, should Catholics or anybody else "waste their time" reading fantasy like Tolkien's? Because, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, "the more truly we can see life as a fairytale, the more clearly the tale resolves itself into war with the dragon who is wasting fairyland." And the more clearly we understand we must wage war against the Dragon, the more inevitable it becomes that we must join ourselves to the cause of the Woman.
Helen Valois is an MI member, freelance writer and mother of two. She lives with her husband, Jim, in Steubenville, OH.
Tolkien's Catholicism cannot be separated from his work
"I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament."
Ignatius Press has recently published a new Tolkien biography, Tolkien: Man and Myth, by Joseph Pearce. Using The Lord of the Rings' victory as best novel of the century as a launching board, Pearce examines why this enigmatic author is so hated, and so loved.
The answer to both phenomena comes down to one thing: He and his work are inescapably Catholic. Tolkien: Man and Myth looks at the ways in which Catholicism is woven into The Lord of the Rings by focusing on the Catholicism of the author himself, apart from which his work cannot be appreciated or understood.
Tolkien became a Catholic through the heroism of his mother, Mabel, a convert. After the death of Tolkien's father when he was only four years old and his brother even younger, Mabel Tolkien grew closer to God and decided to join the Catholic Church. Both her own family and her late husband's disowned her.
The family was sustained through the charity of a local priest, who took the two boys in upon their mother's premature death when Tolkien was sixteen. The faith to which he converted as a child remained the central object of his devotion and gratitude until his own death.
If you ask where Tolkien got the inspiration for the heroism, adventure, and epic grandeur of The Lord of the Rings, literary critics will direct you to the Norse myth, old English, and classical antiquity from which he borrowed certain terms and concepts. This misses the true source, however, which Tolkien made clear in a letter to one of his sons: "Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . . . There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that."
Tolkien: Man and Myth talks about the author's renowned friendship with C. S. Lewis. It explains how the degeneration of that great friendship was also attributable, in a sense, to Tolkien's Catholicism, which did not permit him to endorse the kind of indifferent ecumenism to which Lewis later fell prey.
The biography explains why The Lord of the Rings has divided the critics, inspiring both vitriolic rejection and boundless devotion. It is because Christ himself continues to "spread not peace but the sword." As Anne Atkins of the BBC put it, Tolkien's "Christianity shines through every page. . . . Tolkien's Christian faith informed all his writing, and his heroes were based on a greater hero still. One who wasn't flawed, and who didn't give way to evil."
It isn't really hobbits and wizards, in other words, which the modern critics disparage as irrelevant, silly, and downright dangerous. It is Our Lord and his teachings, reflected in the "Christian myth" Tolkien has created. Patrick Curry sized up the controversy perfectly: "Far from being escapist or reactionary, The Lord of the Rings addresses the greatest struggle of this century and beyond. . . . Who, then, is living in a world of fantasy? Tolkien's critics, not his readers, are out of touch with reality." Helen Valois
Tolkien: Man and Myth
Joseph Pearce · Ignatius Press · 800-651-1531 · 244 pp. $24.95